Billy Joel is one of those artists who has divided opinion for much of his career. It’s not difficult to see why either, as some of his output has aged terribly, and one of his best selling albums, 1983’s An Innocent Man, is a well-intended tribute to doo-wop smothered in some of the most horrific 80s production methods you’ll ever hear. The fact that it also contained “Uptown Girl”, a song seemingly written with the sole purpose of making the red mist descend over anyone with a shred of music taste, certainly does not help it’s case. And the less said about the 1993’s uninspired River of Dreams – a release so lacking in inspiration that it seemingly convinced even Joel himself that he should not make another pop album – the better. Even when Joel actually wrote a song for the ages, such as 1973’s “Piano Man”, it was co-opted by every lounge pianist in every bar and on every cruise ship you might find yourself on. A great song it may be, but damn, has it been overplayed.
The flip side of all this, is that when Billy Joel was at the top of his game, there were few singer-songwriters who could match him for pop smarts. While his 1972 debut album, Cold Spring Harbour, is an obscure but pretty gem, the apex of Joel’s career is unarguably 1977’s The Stranger, his breakthrough album and home to some of his most enduring hits. While it is true enough that the appeal of a song like “Just The Way You Are” is somewhat blunted by familiarity, you’d be hard-pressed to argue that it isn’t a solid, if somewhat soppy, ballad. That’s the strength of The Stranger though, for all it’s reliance on singer-songwriter cliches, you’d be hard pressed to argue that it’s a bad album.
“Movin’ Out (Anthony’s Song)” is a great way to kick off an album of crowd-pleasing pop-rock, with it’s whip-smart arrangement, and just enough grit to give warning that it isn’t going to be schmaltz all the way, and from there The Stranger gradually unfolds, song by song, revealing Joel’s songwriting and performance skills in the best light possible. It’s an album on which Joel revels in showing his range, with “Only The Good Die Young” displaying his mastery of the upbeat pop single, contrasting with the piano balladeering of “She’s Always a Woman”.
The material away from the hit singles adds depth to The Stranger rather than pads it out, but it’s absolute highlight is the multi-faceted “Scenes From an Italian Restaurant”, a song which seamlessly shifts in mood and direction without missing a beat – for all you can criticise Joel for songs like “Uptown Girl”, “It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me” and “The Longest Time”, his career is redeemed by one listen to “Scenes From an Italian Restaurant”.
If your house was on fire and you could only grab one album by each artist, albums like The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road and Sail Away would be saved. If you’re prepared to shelve your prejudices, you can add The Stranger to that list.